Alex Avila is on the disable list after getting plunked on the forearm in Minnesota this past weekend, and so Brayan Pena will get a chance to serve as the team’s primary backstop for at least a couple of weeks. The change is being forced by injury, but it’s a move that many Detroit Tigers fans have been clamoring for for a number of weeks now.
Avila has had a nightmare season at the plate so far, hitting just .171/.271/.288 in 188 plate appearances so far. Catchers aren’t usually required to provide a high level of offensive production, but Avila’s performance has been unsatisfactory even for a catcher. Pena, on the other hand, is having something close to a career year. His .281/.307/.385 batting line isn’t going to turn many heads, but it isn’t all that far off from what a league-average catcher would hit.
The move seemed logical: replace the struggling hitter with the one producing. It’s that simple, except only it isn’t that simple. Pena has exceeded expecations with the bat, and Avila, well, hasn’t, but does that necessarily mean that a swap would produce the best results moving forward? I don’t think so.
Avila has been a very good offensive player in his (basically) three year career. He carries a 108 wRC+ for his career (i.e. created 8% more runs for his team than an average MLB hitter), with his worst season checking in at a WRC+ of 81. He may indeed set a new career low this season when all is said and done, but from this point on (or the point at which he comes off the DL), he’s likely to hit much closer to his career line than his current 56 wRC+ suggests. The ZiPS (92 wRC+ “rest of season”) and Steamer (101 wRC+ “rest of season”) projection systems think he’ll do just fine the rest of the way.
Pena, however, hasn’t been a very good hitter in his career. He’s been a career backup, so he hasn’t had a ton of opportunities in any one season, but in over 1,000 career plate appearances, he’s racked up a wRC+ of just 70 (and has only topped 75 once). His current 88 wRC+ isn’t horrible, but it’s likely to trend the other way. Neither the ZiPS (76 wRC+) nor Steamer (77 wRC+) “rest of season” projections are very confident in his ability to hit.
Pena had a terrific month of May, hitting .354/.374/.521, but we’re already seeing signs of regression. In his last ten games Pena has hit just .207/.233/.241 while seeing his OPS fall by some 70 points. He’s going to get the chance to be the starter with Avila sidelined, but chances are that he won’t hit well enough for good. Chances are that, by the time Avila is ready to be activated from the DL, we’ll be ready for him to take over again. Because it’s Avila, not Pena, that gives the Tigers hope for offensive production out of the catcher position the rest of the year.